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Friends With Money

Nicole Holofcener's social comedy is very much in the femme-centric vein of the writer-director's 2001 feature "Lovely and Amazing." Offers an agreeable grazing menu of smart dialogue, wry observational humor and bright characterizations, but doesn't end up feeling like a full meal. Sony Pictures Classics can look forward to decent, female-driven runs in upscale-tending markets.

Cast:
Olivia - Jennifer Aniston Franny - Joan Cusack Christine - Catherine Keener Jane - Frances McDormand David - Jason Isaacs Mike - Scott Caan Aaron - Simon McBurney Matt - Greg Germann Other Aaron - Ty Burrell Marty - Bob Stephenson

The rich are the same as everyone else in Nicole Holofcener’s social comedy “Friends With Money” — they may have more money, but are equally burdened with issues, doubts and often ambiguous forms of discontent. Very much in the femme-centric vein of the writer-director’s 2001 feature “Lovely and Amazing,” new picture offers an agreeable grazing menu of smart dialogue, wry observational humor and bright characterizations, but doesn’t end up feeling like a full meal. Sony Pictures Classics release can look forward to decent, female-driven runs in upscale-tending markets upon planned April 7 openings.

The nimble, nicely balanced script centers on four longtime female friends who live on Los Angeles’ ever-more affluent west side. At the top of the food chain is the vastly wealthy, philanthropically minded Franny (Joan Cusack), married to the rather tentative, and tentatively drawn, Matt (Greg Germann). Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful, profoundly acerbic fashion designer with a clothes-conscious British husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), many assume is gay. Christine (Catherine Keener) collaborates on screenplays with her husband David (Jason Isaacs), but they tend to argue most of the time.

Then there is Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), the youngest and most attractive of the bunch but the one most at loose ends. Since leaving a teaching job she has perplexed everyone by working as a maid, and she has no boyfriend, at least until being fixed up with arrogant personal trainer Mike (Scott Caan), who accompanies her to the homes she cleans, has sex with her in each one, then demands a cut of Olivia’s earnings, which she meekly hands over.

At the heart of the film’s problems is Olivia’s inscrutability. She clearly has major issues with self-esteem, as she never stands up for herself and proves susceptible to the influence of whoever she’s around. She’s an amorphous, almost absurdly pliable piece of unformed personality, and while it is not Holofcener’s way to provide detailed character backgrounds and psychological profiles–indeed, the film’s unwillingness to explain and offer full resolution counts as a distinction–there is too much that is perplexing about Olivia to let the matter remain entirely unaddressed.

It is easier to infer how the other women got where they are. Stealing the show is Jane, whose rage-fueled rants and scarcely concealed mutterings are loaded with sarcastic bon mots that are delivered to the hilt by McDormand. Jane is experiencing some sort of mid-life crisis that she expresses by refusing to wash her hair, despite the protestations of everyone around her.

She is also able to joke about her husband’s “gay” reputation. Everywhere they go, Aaron is hit on by young men, a serio-comic thread Holofcener deliciously plays out when Aaron becomes exceedingly friendly with a solicitous fellow (Ty Burrell) who’s married, is into fashion and food and, wouldn’t you know it, is also named Aaron.

As for Christine, she’s rather too thin-skinned for her own good, reaching the breaking point when her husband points out that her junk food consumption is giving her a big butt. Getting in a nice dig at West Siders’ relentless home expansion impulses, pic positions the couple as neighborhood pariahs for building a ghastly addition that blocks everyone’s views of the ocean.

Despite the inclusion of life-altering events, Holofcener admirably resists the temptation to send her characters through implausibly grand transformations, viewing character development more realistically as a series of incremental steps. As such, however, the film possesses dramatic and emotional dimensions that more closely resemble those of a modest short story than those of a deep-reaching novel or play, ultimately limiting its impact to something more diverting than weighty.

Performances are uniformly energetic, knowing and engaged, and will help the class and site-specific material speak effectively to sophisticated viewers. The men are mostly backup players here, although Brit thesps Isaacs (sporting a fine Yank accent) and especially McBurney do a lot with their limited opportunities.

Production values are excellent, and songs by Rickie Lee Jones establish a strong generational connection with the characters.

Friends With Money

Production: A Sony Pictures Classics release of a This Is That production. Produced by Anthony Bregman. Executive producers, Ted Hope, Anne Carey, Ray Angelic. Directed, written by Nicole Holofcener.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Terry Stacey; editor, Robert Frazen; original music, Craig Richey; songs and original score, Rickie Lee Jones and The X Position Group; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Amy Ancona; art directors, G. Victoria Ruskin, Stephen H. Carter (New York); set decorators, Maria Nay, Carol Silverman (New York); costume designer, Michael Wilkinson; sound (Dolby), Pud Cusack; supervising sound editor, Cormac Funge; re-recording mixers, Gary J. Coppola, Derek Marcil; assistant director, Drew Ann Rosenberg; casting, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Opening Night), Jan. 19, 2006. Running time: 88 MIN.

With: Olivia - Jennifer Aniston Franny - Joan Cusack Christine - Catherine Keener Jane - Frances McDormand David - Jason Isaacs Mike - Scott Caan Aaron - Simon McBurney Matt - Greg Germann Other Aaron - Ty Burrell Marty - Bob Stephenson

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